Who would true valour sing?

I had the opportunity this week to abide for a while and think by Bunyan’s grave in Bunhill Fields in London. I was on my way back from holiday (Budapest, Sophia, Istanbul, London) and had scarcely thought of work at St Mary’s for most of the time that I had been away.

But finding myself by the grave of John Bunyan did start to bring my mind back to life here at St Mary’s.

I rather like Bunhill Fields. There’s something about being surrounded by so many dissenters that makes me feel at home.

On this occasion, I’d bought some food from the incomparable Whitecross Market which has some of the best street food you’ll find anywhere. The sun was shining through the leaves of the trees and all was right with the world.

Good old Bunyan, I thought – what a glorious place of peace and beauty in which to be remembered.

But then I found myself thinking about the trouble we have with his great hymn.

Here at St Mary’s, we’ve sung it in its original version for many years.

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

It is a favourite hymn for many and has the kind of good rollicking tune that we are partial to in these parts.

But the trouble is, we also have a policy of trying to use inclusive language in our hymnody. Now, inclusive language can mean a number of things. At a bare minimum, it usually means using language for human beings which is inclusive of both men and women. From that follows the question of whether we should use language for God that doesn’t simply use masculine pronouns and masculine imagery. It isn’t difficult for me to answer this – I’m a biblical kind of Christian and the bible uses expansive language for God and it seems to me that it teaches us that the more expansive our language and the more we use the divine spark of imagination that God has put within us, the closer we will come to meeting the God who is always one step beyond any human language.

In recent years, some further challenges have started to appear to this from those with a non-binary identity and voice. For years we’ve been trying to use language like “sisters and brothers” rather than just “brothers” but now it is apparent that some people won’t easily identify as either. This a challenge for hymnody and liturgical language that few will understand and fewer will do much about. If I’m honest, I’m only at the beginning of trying to wrestle with this.

But let us find a way back to Bunyan’s hymn for now and look at the gendered language we find there.

Clearly, here, we have language which uses the male pronoun to describe the pilgrim.

Here at St Mary’s, we try to use hymnody that uses language of those identifying as female as well as those identifying as male. We also try not to use language all the time which uses masculine pronouns and masculine descriptors of God.

So, should we sing Bunyan’s hymn?

This is one of the hymns  that raises this question which we have retained within our repertoire and which I would be loathe to lose.

There are some hymns which I think are just unsingable in our context.

One such hymn is this:

Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three and God is One;
and I next acknowledge duly
manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
in that manhood crucified;
and each thought and deed unruly
do to death, as he has died.

You can tell me until you are blue in the face that manhood here implies humanity and not maleness, but the truth is, that isn’t true for everyone and it isn’t even broadly true for the congregation that I serve.  Firmly I believe and truly has gone the way of all flesh and simply isn’t sung here any more.

Another tricky one is Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. This is one which we have retained as is as I’ve never been able quite to bear Dear Lord and Parent of Us All.

I have in the past suggested that our inclusive language policy should be that we sing hymns in inclusive language for anything written after 1872, the year in which it’s author died.

(We’ll gloss over the fact that Dear Lord and Father comes from a poem called The Brewing of Soma about Vedic priests brewing up an hallucinogen for now, but we might come back to that at a later date. All is not what it seems therein).

We’ve kept singing Bunyan’s hymn in its original form here too for the last few years at least.

The reasoning being that if we are singing about hobgoblins then people ought to understand that this is a historical piece of writing and be able to place it in some context given all the efforts we make to make most of our worship as inclusive as we can.

[If you would like a hobgoblin diversion, can I ask you to stop at this point and go and read this blog post and its associated comments now: http://thurible.net/2008/06/30/hobgoblin-nor-foul-fiend/]

However, I have the feeling that things may be changing. The last time we sang about hobgoblins it was clear that some in the congregation were feeling more uncomfortable about all the male language than they once would have done.

What has changed?

I think that we were singing this as the #metoo conversation was starting to develop on social media.

I also think we live increasingly in the world of the instant. Someone may come to St Mary’s once and maybe not even for a full service and judge who we are and what we believe by what they encounter in a moment. In an instant, one might be convinced that we are unthinkingly singing words which imply maleness as normative for God’s people.

This post isn’t political correctness gone mad by the way. This is political correctness at its most thoughtful.

For the question I now find myself is how can we sing Bunyan’s hymn in a world in which gendered language is very sensitive?

How shall we sing the songs of Zion in a strange (in the sense of new) land?

There are a number of possibilities.

  1. Carry on singing Bunyan’s words
  2. Sing Bunyan’s words with a disclaimer in the service sheet
  3. Sing new versions of the same hymn, noting that there’s quite a tradition of meddling with this hymn.
  4. Alternate male and female language in the hymn.
  5. Stop singing it altogether.

I’ve already discussed the problems around number 1.

Number 2 seems unsatisfactory to me. It reminds me of someone who once responded to a request to produce a commentary down the side of a service sheet as to why people were doing what they were doing at that point with the words: “Once you explain the liturgy, doesn’t it in some sense disappear?” – I have some sympathy with her view.

Number 3 is certainly a possibility though not one which will please everyone. The most obvious messing with the hymn that has been done is Percy Dearmer’s version of it:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound—his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end, shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

This does away with the hobgoblins but not the exclusive language. I tend to be of the view that we should be hobgoblin positive and lose the exclusive language.

Picking up the most inclusive hymnbook I possess (The New Century Hymnal from the United Church of Christ), I find that someone has had a brave go at modifying Dearmer’s text.


We who would valiant be: let us not waver,
but in true constancy follow the Savior
There’s no discouragement shall make us once relent
our first avowed intent to live as pilgrims

Those who may us surround with dismal stories,
only themselves confound; our strength the more is.
No foes shall give us fright, ours is the one true Light;
we will make good our right  to live as pilgrims.

Since Savior, you defend us with your Spirit,
we know we at the end shall life inherit.
Cruel rumors, flee away! We’ll fear not what they say;
we’ll labor night and day to live as pilgrims.

And looking in a Lutheran direction, I find:

1 All who would valiant be
‘Gainst all disaster,
Let them in constancy
Follow the master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make them once relent
Their first avowed intent
To be true pilgrims.

2 Who so beset them round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
Their strength the more is.
No foes shall stay their might:
Though they with giants fight,
They will make good their right
To be true pilgrims.

3 Since, Lord, you will defend
Us with your Spirit,
We know we at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
We’ll fear not what they say,
We’ll labor night and day
To be true pilgrims.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure which of those I would chose. I know they would annoy some people mightily and please some people mightily.

The truth is, people can’t worship God well when they are annoyed mightily. So it is still difficult to know what to do.

And we’ve still lost the hobgoblins.

We could try using they as a personal pronoun: “Who would true valour see, let them come hither” which starts reasonably enough but starts to get into trouble with “No lion can them fight, They’ll with a giant fight” and loses credibility when we get into “Then fancies fly away, they’ll fear not what men say”. To be honest, by the time we’ve got to that point, I’m not sure what we are singing about.

How about option 4 – alternating the language:

Who would true valour see,
Let her come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make her once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

So far so good.

But the trouble is, though there’s some fun to be had with “She’ll fear not what men say”, Bunyan wasn’t writing a hymn about our current gender battles at all. He was writing about a human soul courageously living the Christian life in the face of bad things. (Bad things for him were exemplified by hobgoblins, giants and lions rather than sexism, homophobia and Brexit that might be more familiar to us).

Which leads us to option 5 – to stop singing it altogether.

I have to confess, I would find this completely unsatisfactory. Notwithstanding our problems with it, I still think it is a fine thing.

Sitting beside Bunyan’s grave I found myself humming Monks Gate, the tune we know and love to this hymn.

I find it jolly and enjoyable.

I am puzzled as to what a modern congregation committed to language that is inclusive of all people should do with it.

So what would you chose to do if you were involved in shaping the choice of a music list?

These are real questions, and I would be interested in thoughtful answers.

Who would true valour sing? Let them come hither.

Comments welcome though disrespectful and dull comments won’t make it through moderation.

John Bunyan's Grave





Inclusive Language and Politeness

Every now and then I learn how to be just a bit more polite to someone.

It isn’t that I’m particularly rude, at least, I hope not. It is more that I’m still learning about people and still learning about how people prefer to be treated. Meeting a lot of people as I do means that there’s always more to learn.

Here at St Mary’s, we are quite sensitive to gender. There was an exercise going on in the office today which was all about writing to the congregation and we faced every possible variation of people living in the same premises who might prefer to be written to together or who might prefer to receive a letter addressed not to a couple but to two individuals. Lots of different legal ways in which people find themselves coupled up means a lot of difficulty trying to decide how to address letters and envelopes.

On this occasion, it isn’t me who is doing that job but others and it is inevitable that some people will find themselves being addressed in ways that they would prefer not to be addressed. I hope they will simply let us know if we’ve got it wrong.

Inclusive language in church seems to attract a huge amount of comment but it is really mostly a question of politeness.

Long ago, I accepted that it is a bit rude to speak to a group of people which includes people who identify as both male and female as though they are all men. And for that reason, we try to use inclusive language at St Mary’s.

It is harder than it seems too. Hymns are the most difficult to deal with. Most hymns can be changed sensitively and sensibly into language that is inclusive of everyone but it does take work and there are some that I just don’t know what to do with.

To me it isn’t an issue of political correctness, it is just a matter of being polite. Why be an oaf and deliberately leave other human beings feeling left out of your discourse after all?

There are some hymns I can’t put into inclusive language which have just disappeared from our hymnnody here. An example of that would be

Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified;
And each thought and deed unruly
Do to death, as He has died.

I can’t see any way of making that singable now and to sing the original makes some people snigger about the word Manhood. So, love the tune as I do and though it tugs a bit on my heartstrings, we’ve not sung it for years and I can’t really imagine it being sung here again.

There are a tiny number of hymns that I can’t do anything much with in terms of changing them but which I’m not prepared to ditch. The most obvious of these is:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

I don’t like “mankind” but I can’t find any way of rewriting it that makes sense and it is just too good a hymn to drop completely.

Similarly with Bunyan:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

I think there is some fun to be had singing that occasionally with female pronouns (“She’ll fear not what men say…” and all) but basically it isn’t a hymn that lends itself to inclusive language and my best hope is anyone singing it might realise that if we are singing about hobgoblins then we are not really using the language of the moment anyway.

It is my view that we need to reflect the widest range of imagery for both human beings and for God simply because we are biblical people and that’s reflective of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

That’s why we sometimes sing things that have exclusively female imagery as well as those which have lots of male language. This from John Bell is particularly good:

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
She is the key opening the scriptures,
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.

It was interesting to see the opprobrium which landed upon the Church of Sweden over some minor inclusive language changes this week.

“The Church of Sweden to stop referring to God as He or Lord” howled the Telegraph and many other newspapers without bothering to check whether this was remotely true. They’ve changed the liturgy to include one gender-neutral expression as a possibility for the start of a worship service. So now, they can use “In the name of the triune God” as well as still being able to use – “In th e name of God, the Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit”

It doesn’t seem particularly radical to me but it is the kind of thing that stokes up fake outrage very quickly.

There quite a good report here: https://www.thelocal.se/20171124/no-the-swedish-church-has-not-banned-the-male-pronoun-god

The Swedish Church has hit out at ‘fake news’ after reports it had decided to stop calling God ‘he’ or ‘Lord’. ‘It is not true,’ a spokesperson told The Local.
The Church of Sweden will only refer to God in gender-neutral terms, reported several of the world’s biggest news outlets on Friday, saying it had made the decision in an update of its 31-year-old handbook…

“It’s not true,” repeated Sofija Pedersen Videke, head of the Church’s service of worship committee, which was heavily involved in the work on the new handbook before it went before the Church Assembly.

The Church Assembly, a 251-member decision-making body, voted on Thursday with a large majority to update the handbook, which includes the Church’s aim to use language that is “more inclusive”.

“The old handbook is from 1986 and the new edition is much more in line with the Swedish Bible translation made in 2000,” Pedersen Videke told The Local. “God is beyond ‘she’ and ‘he’, God is so much more.”

“We want variation when it comes to how you express yourself, just like in the Bible.”

It all seems so sensible, so Swedish and so completely unsensational.

The most recent things I’ve learned about inclusive language are that things that I used to think were inclusive of people are not so inclusive of other people.

Addressing an assembly of people as “brothers and sisters” or (better) “sisters and brothers” has for a long time seemed to me to be inclusive and capable of drawing people in.

I’ve recently learned that it can leave some people feeling very much excluded and left out of the circle of faith.

If you identify as non-binary then you are not going to feel included by sisters and brothers language at all.

And remember that God is distinctly non-binary in scripture.

This affects how we develop liturgy in the future. Its a good thing I think to write and speak in ways that don’t leave people feeling left out.

No, not just a good thing.

I think it is a polite thing.

We shouldn’t use inclusive language just because it seems right and certainly not just because we are told to use it. We should use it because it is a matter of politeness.

Imagine if you could draw more people into church just by being a bit more polite.


Don’t just imagine it.

[Comments are allowed for this post but will be moderated. I’d be interested in any discussion about the post above but I’m not interested here in an argument against inclusive language per se or anything that is rude about women or indeed rude about anyone. Please argue about whether or not inclusive language should be a thing elsewhere if you must but not right here, right now. There’s a much more interesting conversation to be had about why we might want to be inclusive and how we might be inclusive and there’s always more to learn. I’ll be moderating accordingly].